Rick and Morty creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have recently learned the hard way that you have no control over what people do in the name of your creation. A number of high profile scandals concerning the fanbase for their adult cartoon have circulated over the last few months, ranging from the embarrassing to the outright horrifying. On one end of the scale is the fiasco concerning McDonalds’ Szechuan sauce promotion, which caught the eye of many Rick and Morty fans after the sauce was used as a joke in the season three premier. Outraged fans made their disappointment very well known, from Twitter rants to in-store breakdowns to incidents that required a police presence (no one was seriously hurt, from what I can gather).
It’s possible to believe that this kind of behaviour is the work of a loud minority, a rotten crop in an otherwise perfectly fine field. But at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how many people are ruining the fun, which brings us to the other end of the scale; the online abuse of the show’s new female writers, up to and including death threats. However many Rick and Morty fans are involved in this behaviour no longer matters; the problem is a big one.
But let’s not pretend the issue is an isolated one: this Rick and Morty debacle might have caught the media eye with its outrageous spectacle, but plenty of similar instances have occured in the name of other shows. Over the summer, fury was sparked as it was announced that the titular role of Doctor Who would be taken on by a woman, for the first time in the show’s 54-year history. The actress in question is Jodie Whittaker (who, for the record, is fantastic), and within a week British newspapers were publishing nude photos of her, and comment sections were aflame with cries of pandering and ‘social justice gone mad’. That’s right, folks: we’ve reached the point where women existing and doing their job is a social outrage!
There are countless examples of behaviour like this that would be too depressing to list. Why does it happen? There’s no smoke without fire, after all, so what is it that’s lighting these flames? It doesn’t seem to be the shows themselves; for all its problematic failings, Doctor Who has become a more progressive show in recent years, and certainly doesn’t support the kind of vitriol it’s new lead actress has been receiving. Rick and Morty is a little more dubious; its lead character is an alcoholic old man who thinks he’s smarter than everyone and constantly puts his whole family in danger for his own narcissistic ends. It’s made pretty clear that Rick is an awful human being that you shouldn’t be rooting for, but the show embraces a kind of nihilism that doesn’t punish him for his actions. It’s just ambiguous enough that some fans might cling to the idea that the show encourages you to be an awful person, and that’s it’s okay because you’re better than everyone. It doesn’t help that Rick is also shown at points to have issues with depression and alcoholism.
This doesn’t in any way soften the character; he’s a jerk whatever way you look at it. But it’s easy to see how someone might spin it to find sympathy for Rick, and subsequently themselves. The kind of angsty teenager who spends all day mansplaining to his chemistry teacher and then goes home and trolls people online might find some kind of validation in that reading.
The kinds of tropes that encourage these interpretations go way beyond Rick and Morty, but the show pushes them to the extreme to pull them apart (not that these types of fans see that), and it’s one of the most popular examples of those tropes. It’s an extreme example, but it isn’t isolated, and we’re well past the point where we should be discussing the role shows like this play in inciting behaviour like that.